Environment Secretary Owen Paterson speaks at the Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband calls Cameron out on the Tory climate change deniers

By forcing Cameron to reaffirm his green credentials, the Labour leader skillfully drove a wedge between the PM and his party.

In response to recent events such as Typhoon Haiyan and the floods in Britain, David Cameron has affirmed his belief that man-made climate change is a threat that must be tackled. He said during his trip to Sri Lanka last year: "Scientists are giving us a very certain message. Even if you're less certain than the scientists it makes sense to act both in terms of trying to prevent and mitigate." But a significant number in Cameron's party, including, remarkably the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and the Energy minister Michael Fallon, take the reverse view, continuing to question the existence of anthropogenic climate change at all. Fallon has described climate change as "theology", while Paterson has declared: "People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries." (The 12 warmest years have all come in the last 15.)

At today's PMQs, Ed Miliband seized on this divide. After asking Cameron to confirm his position on climate change ("one of the most serious threats," replied the PM), he quoted Paterson and Fallon's sceptical comments and demanded to know whether Cameron was "happy to have climate change deniers in his government". In response, Cameron simply ignored the question and quipped that he was pleased Miliband's "new approach" included praising his stance on climate change. Miliband's well-delivered reply was that he had "gone from thinking it was a basic part of his credo to it being a matter of individual conscience". He ended: "If we’re to properly protect the British people against the threats they face, we cannot have doubt and confusion in his government on the issue of climate change. Doesn’t he need to rediscover the courage of his past convictions and tell his party to get real on climate change?”

To this, Cameron responded by listing the policies the coalition has introduced in this area, including "the Green Investment Bank, the cuts in carbon, the investment in renewables, the investment in nuclear", and declared: "he talks a good game but he actually didn't achieve anything when he was in office". Given that Miliband was the Energy and Climate Change Secretary who passed the Climate Change Act (mandating an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050) the last comment was particularly inappropriate and Cameron's other remarks show why this was a smart line of attack. By forcing the Cameron to brandish his green credentials, Miliband is driving a wedge between him and the climate change deniers in his party.  Few Tories will have enjoyed being reminded of the Lib Dem-friendly measures he listed. The PM's refusal to acknowledge the chasm between his views and those of many Tories also allows Miliband to present him as a "weak" leader, unable to enforce collective responsibility in his government.

Earlier in the session, Miliband challenged Cameron to correct his claim that flood defence spending had increased since 2010 after the UK Statistics Authority confirmed that it had fallen (in both real and nominal terms). In defiance of the nation's senior number crunchers, Cameron continued to insist that it had risen, but only by ignoring inflation and by including non-government spending (as Miliband noted). In a sure sign that he was losing the argument, Cameron resorted to the age-old charge that the opposition leader was dividing the country and had "misjudged the mood". It was a line of attack reminsicent of those deployed by Gordon Brown at his weakest moments during the recession. Cameron appeared both evasive and arrogant. The abiding impression was of a man whose words, on climate change and flood defences, cannot be trusted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.